The Blurred Lines Between ADHD and Sleep Deprivation: Parents of Student Athletes

We understand that you always try to ensure your kids stay mentally sharp. Nowadays, with all the gadgets around, it’s hard to tell whether your teen is struggling with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or just not getting enough sleep. Both issues have similar signs, making it challenging for psychologists and parents to figure out what’s happening.

Recent studies from the National Sleep Foundation show that almost half of teens in the US don’t get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep each night. This lack of sleep can cause problems with thinking, emotions, and behavior, which look a lot like ADHD symptoms.

What are these shared signs? 

They include:

  • Feeling foggy: Teens with ADHD or who don’t sleep enough might have trouble focusing and remembering things, even on simple tasks. 
  • Acting on impulses: When teens don’t get enough sleep, they might act impulsively or do things without thinking. This can make ADHD symptoms worse, especially for teens trying to stay disciplined.
  • Trouble paying attention: Both kids with ADHD and kids who are sleep-deprived and struggle to stay focused on tasks or follow instructions. Their minds might wander, making it hard to do well in school or sports.
  • Feeling unmotivated: Some teens might lose interest in things they used to enjoy. Not getting enough sleep can make them feel sluggish and less excited about their passions.
  • Emotional rollercoasters: Both ADHD and not enough sleep can make teens feel moody or easily upset. They might have trouble controlling their emotions, leading to outbursts or feeling down.
  • Trouble finishing tasks. These students might have trouble starting or completing tasks like chores or homework.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep isn’t just about resting – the brain must work well. Sleep helps with memory, emotional regulation, and thinking clearly. Studies have shown that when teens don’t get enough sleep, they have less activity in the parts of the brain that relate to attention and focus. For your student-athletes, that can be the difference between great practice vs. being benched or between doing well on a test and not. Even worse – lack of sleep can cause major increases in irritability, mood swings, and impulsivity. 

Where does ADHD come in? 

ADHD is different from just not sleeping enough – it’s a disorder that is characterized by patterns of impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention (meaning the brain works differently). However, teens with ADHD often have trouble sleeping well. This can worsen their symptoms and make it even harder for them to stay on track. So, parents and healthcare professionals must address both sleep and underlying conditions. 

How can you know if it’s ADHD, sleep issues, or both? 

While we will never pretend to diagnose ADHD, and we encourage you to reach out to your child’s primary care provider if you are concerned, we encourage you to consider both sleep habits and the possibility of ADHD. Ensure they keep a regular sleep schedule so their symptoms can improve if sleep deprivation is the culprit. However, suppose their symptoms persist even after getting enough sleep. In that case, it might be time to explore an ADHD evaluation to target therapies and strategies to help your kid thrive. 

So, how can you help your kid sleep better? Take a look at the below recommendations:

  1. Set a regular bedtime and wake time, even on weekends, to help regulate your child’s internal clock. Here at Untapped, we recommend avoiding more than a two-hour difference in your teens’ sleep/wake hours from weekday to weekend.
  2. To create a sleep-friendly environment, make sure your kid’s bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool. Remove electronic devices from the room to minimize distractions and reduce exposure to blue light!
  3. Encourage your teen to move throughout the day to help improve sleep quality regularly. However, try to avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime, as it may interfere with their ability to fall asleep.
  4. If all else fails, work with professionals (healthcare providers, therapists, educators) to find strategies to help your student sleep. Slowing down the ADHD brain before bedtime can be difficult, and outside help might be needed.

By paying attention to sleep habits and possible ADHD symptoms, you can help your students do their best. Remember, good sleep isn’t just about feeling rested – it is the lead domino that can set the stage for success in everything they do. 

For even more reading, check out:

ADD or Sleep Deprivation? How to Tell the Difference

What to know about ADHD and brain fog

ADHD and Sleep

Partial Sleep Deprivation Impacts Impulsive Action but Not Impulsive Decision-Making

ADHD and Sleep Disorders: Are Kids Getting Misdiagnosed?

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